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Whatever happened to ‘Pearsonian internationalism’?


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In late November, and in the absence of a full-fledged white paper on foreign policy by the governing Conservatives (incidentally, the only federal government in the last 40 years not to do so), the Harper government released its 15-page brochure entitled Global Markets Action Plan or (G-MAP). In Harperland, I guess that’s what passes for thoughtful foreign policy analysis these days.

As International Trade Minister Ed Fast noted: “In short, the plan will play to our strengths and ensure that all Government of Canada diplomatic assets are harnessed to support the pursuit of commercial success by Canadian companies and investors.”

To be blunt, though, this has less to do with foreign policy and a great deal to do with domestic politics. It’s chiefly about winning votes and stuffing party coffers by being able to point to job creation and rising incomes in Canada via increased trade and a slew of free trade agreements with just about anyone.

Moreover, this new mercantilist strategy is designed to shift further away from Pearsonian internationalism—that is, Liberal prime minister and long-serving foreign minister Lester Pearson’s embrace of engagement in the world, the use of multilateral fora, peacekeeping and mediation, and Canada’s commitment to be a good international citizen—largely because of its association with previous Liberal governments. The Harperites have their mind firmly set on turning Canadians away from liberal internationalism (the long-standing calling card of Canadian diplomacy since 1945) to their own brand of “economic diplomacy” in hopes of cementing the Conservatives as the natural governing party in Canada.

Now, I’m not suggesting for one moment that trade policy is not a central tenet in the conduct of our foreign relations. The two — international policy and trade enhancement — should be working in tandem. But there is far more to Canadian foreign policy than commercial exchange and increased market access around the world.

The fact of the matter is that G-MAP, notwithstanding what Minister Fast is suggesting, is not even good trade policy. To build constructive commercial relations with another country - especially in places like Latin America - you first need to build a solid foundation and friendship. For that to happen, it requires time and diplomacy, an attention to detail, and the building of positive goodwill and trust over time. Only then will two-way trade be in a position to flourish.

Moreover, a healthy commercial relationship requires a laser-like focus on a series of issue areas — education, diplomatic outreach, health, person-to-person contacts and exchanges, internal security and capacity-building — and not a singular concentration on trade figures. Stated differently, the country that we are seeking to boost trade with has to know that we have a broad interest in their country, are willing to assist them in moving forward, and are dedicated to that country’s overall welfare.

It can’t just be one-dimensional, as a trade focus betrays; it has to be mutually reinforcing.

It is also true that the incorporation of human rights in our foreign policy will certainly be a casualty of this commercial obsession. When push comes to shove, trade considerations will inevitably push rights issues off the table. In fact, it’s already happening in Latin America and Africa, where the interests of Canadian mining companies have led to the near silencing of our human rights voice.

It is particularly troublesome to note that no new resources—after already two years of cuts to Foreign Affairs—will be earmarked for this new approach. That means that staff, money and time will have to be diverted from other areas of our international policy, such as democracy promotion, diplomacy, development and peace and security.

Accordingly, morale inside the Pearson Building in Ottawa will surely plummet further. It’s a real wake-up call to learn that your years of foreign policy expertise and training are now being reduced to negotiating business deals. Our ambassadors abroad, after many years of dedicated diplomatic service, are now glorified trade commissioners. A Department that was once regarded as “the best and the brightest” is no longer — and no longer appreciated.

Enabling partisan politics, then, to dictate our foreign policy posture is a huge error in judgment. Not only will it hurt our standing and profile internationally, but it will also make it difficult for Canada to build mutually beneficial relations with a host of regions around the world. That, in turn, will do little to foster trade promotion — especially when targeted countries realize that Canada is primarily obsessed with simply extracting benefits from their own country and focusing solely on the well-being of Canadians.

 Peter McKenna teaches Canadian foreign policy at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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